Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Thanks, Google!

Google really is a pretty amazing thing. Every time I read Dostoevsky or MacDonald or Chesterton or Lewis or Williams or Waugh, I get frustrated wondering what happened to this tradition of Christian novelists, a tradition whose quality the secular world recognizes. (Of course, several of these writers wrote much more than novels, but I haven’t puzzled so much trying to find, for instance, Christian essays from more recent times.) So I did what young people do: I Googled it. Of the handful of names that came up, the one that seemed the most promising based on user reviews (and that’s where the internet breaks down as a helpful source) was Robertson Davies.

For mostly random reasons, I decided to start Davies with The Rebel Angels, book 1 of his Cornish Trilogy. I’m about halfway through, and it has not disappointed in the least; based on my tiny sample, I can even compare it favorably with the previous authors I had in mind. Like Dostoevsky, for instance, Davies avoids predictably pious characters and just presents people of many stripes and lets them talk. Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (about whom I know only the information contained in this sentence) compares Dostoevsky’s books to musical counterpoint: the characters and their various viewpoints simply speak to each other, sometimes in conflict and sometimes in support, and the author just trusts that the Truth will come out in the composite texture. I know his books work that way for me. As George Morrison says of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky reports the world faithfully and, without overtly pursing an agenda, makes his point because the world makes its point as day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge. The Rebel Angels offers a sex-crazed epicurean, an ex-monk who declares himself a skeptic about everything except the existence of God, several academics whose religion seems to consist of devotion to research, and an Anglican priest who has become resigned to imperfections in the world, in his acquaintances, and in himself.

Like Williams and others on my list, Davies writes dense books. The Rebel Angels examines university professors, gypsies, violin making, wills, art collectors, Rabelais, bodily functions, luck, Paracelsus, clothing, dinner etiquette, literature in translation, romanticism, philosophy of science, humility, codes of honor, opulence, novel writing, bodily functions, evolutionary theories of love, and much more. Every page has something to think about. Two examples: (1) One professor states that the renaissance university got its energy from the conflict of humanism and theology, while the modern university draws its energy from the marriage of science and government. (2) In a dinner conversation about the nature of personhood, one character says that anyone who thinks declaring a person to be a spirit makes one spiritual misses a giant spiritual truth: the body’s structures and routine operations are persistent miracles.

Thanks, Google! I think I found what I was looking for.

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